Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The conspiracy

I haven't been able to post because I've spent all my spare time replying to comments about my Lonely Planet article. The Hindutva guys are on Thorn Tree, as well, defending Lonely Planet. Which should give LP some pause for thought.
A conspiracy theory had to be around the corner, and one has been invented. Apparently, though I claim to be a freelancer, I have 'intimate links' to Outlook Traveller and Time Out, which are rivals to Lonely Planet. The person who wrote that obviously doesn't understand what a freelancer is. We freelancers write for anybody who pays well enough. Tomorrow I'd happily write for LP if they offered me a story and sent me to an interesting location.
The Outlook Traveller experience, in fact, was a disaster. I wish there was some way I could remove my name from the piece on the Web. My story was changed radically and a number of new sentences added, containing factual errors. For example, the City Palace is called "a complex of beautiful buildings in granite and marble". Anyone who has been to Udaipur knows there's very little granite and marble in the City Palace. But there the error stays, with my name attached.
I was so furious with Outlook after that assignment, that I swore off writing for them, before agreeing to do a piece just fifteen days ago. None of the editorial staff responsible for shredding my Rajasthan articles are there any more, so I decided to let bygones be bygones.
Still, I am some way from being an Outlook Traveller shill.
I'm much more loyal to Time Out; after all, I had a column in the mag for years, and think it's kept an incredibly high standard since its inaugural issue. But my Time Out loyalty doesn't extend to guidebooks. I bought Lonely Planet India, after all, not the Time Out guide. That was because I liked the LPs I used on foreign trips. The only Time Out guide I have consulted was the Chicago one, and I didn't find it particularly useful.

Meanwhile, I'm in Delhi again, trying to get a paper done for a seminar tomorrow. I've visited about once each month for the past six, and discovered in the process that Delhi drivers know nothing about the city. One time, I wanted to go to the India International Centre, asked the driver if he knew it, or IIC or the Habitat Centre (which the autowallas usually know). He kept shaking his head. I said finally, OK, just take me to Lodi Gardens and I'll direct you from there.
He had not heard of Lodi Gardens.
Today my driver got lost looking for Kasturba Gandhi Road and then Maharani Bagh. Luckily, I've developed a habit of picking up one of the free maps on the India Tourism counter at the airport. It's always proved really useful, and even more so now that every tourist car driver seems to have arrived in Delhi within the past six months.

UPDATE: October 28. This evening after the seminar was done for the day I was chatting with a few friends including Jitish Kallat. Jitish is staying in the same guest house as I am, in Maharani Bagh.
I said to him, "You got in pretty late last night".
He said, "It took me two and a half hours from the airport. The driver took me to a place called Rani Bagh. After about forty-five minutes of driving from the airport, I began to suspect this wasn't where I should be heading. I asked the driver if he was sure. He said he was absolutely sure, 'Rani Bagh used to be Maharani Bagh, now everyone called it Rani Bagh for short'."
Once at Rani Bagh Jitish grew doubly sure this couldn't be his destination. Rani Bagh is in north-west Delhi and Maharani Bagh in the south-east.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The deficit experiment

David Cameron is no softy, that much is clear. The kind of cuts to services he envisages go beyond what any government has attempted without being pressured by creditors. So now we have an interesting experiment being set up: in the United States, the Obama administration has chosen to live with deficits for the medium term, and wait for revenues to rise once the economy begins to grow again. The UK has taken a very different direction. Five years down the line, we will know which approach worked best.
However, I doubt if any rigid positions will budge as a result of this transcontinental experiment. After all, my friends who are enthusiastic about free markets refuse to blame lax regulation and excessive speculation for the meltdown of 2008, despite all the evidence that those two in combination triggered the financial crisis. They blame, instead two quasi-government housing loan agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which were in existence for decades before the crash, and pursuing the same policies through that entire period, which saw a number of real estate booms and busts.

Two sidelights:
The party that stands to lose the most as a result of Cameron's first budget and future economic plans is the junior partner in the ruling coalition. The Lib Dems are going to have a really tough time next time round with what's probably going to be a polarised electorate.

It's been funny to see France half-paralysed by protests against a proposed raising of the retirement age to 62, while Brits appear to have meekly accepted retirement at 66.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lonely Planet's Islamophobia

My Yahoo! column this week focuses on errors and biases in Lonely Planet's wildly popular India guide. Read the piece here.
A couple of years ago I emailed Lonely Planet, pointing out some of the errors mentioned in this article. I received no response, and when the new edition arrived I found it carried most of the same mistakes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lennon, Imagine and Come Together

I'm late with a 70th birthday homage to John Lennon, but that's because I've been shuttling between cities too much.

Anytime there's a tribute concert or any memorial event for Lennon, there'll be hordes of people swaying and singing Imagine. I understand why. Imagine is free of inputs from Lennon's band-mates. It is a simple, moving and radical song. But its emotional impact and political message have been dampened by overuse, turning the song into a cliche (though some chap on American Idol a couple of years ago refused to sing the 'no religion' verse, reminding us of its better days). Imagine, moreover, lacks the sardonic wit that enlivened Lennon's songs and interviews.
I find Come Together from Abbey Road a good antidote to Imagine, and think of it as the most representative Lennon song (you can hear it here). Take the title, for a start. It seems to seek peace and harmony in a manner similar to Imagine, but also contains, as Lennon once pointed out, 'the other meaning'. The refrain goes, 'Come together, right now, over me'. The first two words are flower-child-y enough, but what's unusual is the imperative mood, as if we were being commanded to inculcate tolerance and liberalism. This feeling is heightened by the next phrase, 'right now'. Not only must we learn to live as one, but we are ordered to do so immediately. And then the mysterious 'over me', which doesn't have a pindownable meaning. The line starts out in one place and ends somewhere else altogether.

These are the words of the entire song:

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

He wear no shoeshine he got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger he shoot coca-cola
He say "I know you, you know me"
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together right now over me

He bag production he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard he one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knees
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
Come together right now over me

He roller-coaster he got early warning
He got muddy water he one mojo filter
He say "One and one and one is three"
Got to be good-looking 'cause he's so hard to see
Come together right now over me

The song's frequently interpreted as a description of Lennon, or of all four Beatles in succession, but it's pointless seeking that kind of coherence in words deliberately written as gibberish. We have the protagonist described as 'flat top' at the start, but two lines later this is transformed into 'hair down below his knee', as if a marine suddenly turned into a hippie. The protagonist doesn't come across as a winning personality: joo-joo eyeball, toejam football, monkey finger, walrus gumboot, muddy water, spinal cracker, while all largely undecipherable, certainly don't constitute attractive features. The 'feel his disease' bit more or less settles the case. What worth are we to ascribe to such a man's viewpoint?
The protagonist wants two things of us: first that we come together; second that we be free. These two desires encapsulate the contradictory nature of the freedom envisioned by sixties' counterculture. To explain what I mean, let's turn to the two sources Lennon used in creating the song. The first line is pinched from Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me, a song that also inspired Lennon's tune. Though Lennon, on McCartney's advice, slowed down the rhythm of Come Together, he was sued for plagiarism and settled out of court.

You can hear the Berry song here. Lennon's 'flat-top, grooving up slowly' is a riff on lines in the third stanza:

You Can't Catch Me

I bought a brand-new air-mobile.
It' custom-made, 'twas a Flight De Ville.
With a pow'ful motor and some hideaway wings.
Push in on the button and you will get a scene.

Now you can't catch me,
Baby, you can't catch me.
'Cause if you get too close,
You know I'm gone, like a cool breeze.

New Jersey Turnpike in the wee, wee hours,
I was rollin' slow because of drizzlin' showers.
Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me,
Then come wavin' goodbye a little' old souped-up jitney.
I put my foot in my tank and I began to roll.
Moanin' siren, 'twas a state patrol.
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn,
Bye-bye New Jersey, I' become airborne.

For Chuck Berry, freedom is simple. It means fast cars, pretty girls, money, and rock and roll. Authority might try getting in the way, but Berry's quicker, and has a vast continent in which to ride and hide.
The protagonist of Come Together is on a different trip. He 'shoots Coca Cola' and is on a roller-coaster. The suggestion is of physical stasis accompanied by neural stimulation. The rhythm, described by McCartney as 'swampy', creates the appropriate drugged mood, so different from the snappy pace of the Chuck Berry number. The title of Come Together was derived from Timothy Leary's quixotic campaign for California governor against Ronald Reagan. Leary was an advocate of drug use and legalising marijuana. He joined John and Yoko at their Montreal bed-in, and asked Lennon to write a song built around his campaign slogan, 'Come together, join the party'. Lennon didn't comply, but composed the tune we know around the time Leary was jailed for drug possession. Chuck Berry, meanwhile, had finished serving a sentence for pursuing his own brand of freedom: he was jailed for violating the Mann Act, transporting an underage female across state lines. The girl in question was somewhat younger than Sweet Little Sixteen, and Berry's air-mobile obviously not quick enough to evade the flat-tops.
While Berry's view of the world has always been entirely self-centred and pleasure-driven, Leary's journey was different. He began his experiments with drugs after discovering mushrooms used as hallucinogens in ritual ceremonies among natives of South America. Mind-altering drugs, in this tradition, were supposed to be simultaneously a reaching within the self and a reaching out to others, simultaneously an individualistic and communitarian act. That's the ideal enunciated in Lennon's song: the twin injunctions of 'gotta be free' and 'come together'. But the imagery he invents, half nonsensical though it is, undercuts the possibility of reaching out while also being self-absorbed, and thus serves as a critique of himself as well as of sixties' counterculture as a whole.

After this analysis, which will doubtless be received as over-reading by many, it's time for some light relief. In 1972, Lennon and Berry appeared live on the Mike Douglas show, the only time the two greats met. Introducing his guest, Lennon made his famous comment that, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. Their jam session was a bit of a train wreck, obviously under-rehearsed, and not helped by Yoko Ono on Berry's left punctuating proceedings with the occasional primal scream.
You can see Lennon's introduction here, their attempt at Johnny B. Goode here, a truly catastrophic Memphis, Tennessee here. Don't miss Berry's startled response to Yoko's scream at 3.15.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The HCC Group, builders of Lavasa township, claim in an ad that they've turned the area greener. Click on the images and see them at higher resolution. You will notice that the settlement is built around a lake created by a dam. In the 2007 image, the lake level is low, and there's no water streaming in, or collected in the area beyond the dam. In the 2010 image, there's water everywhere. The 'before' picture appears to have been taken in high summer, and the 'after' one at the end of a very wet quarter.
The connection between extra greenery and the construction of hundreds of concrete tower blocks remains unproven.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A new life

So, American forces picked up a German Afghan named Ahmed Sidiqi in Kabul, and drone-bombed his colleagues, five German citizens of mainly Arab extraction, in the lawless, tribal, mountainous, inaccessible, remote (take your pick) area of Pakistan near the Afghan border. Sidiqi used to live in Hamburg, but, some time last year, left for Afghanistan, from where he travelled to Pakistan for terror training.
His family is in denial (aren't they always?). They're like, well, he wasn't flourishing in Hamburg, and so decided to start a new life in Kabul. Isn't it about time people understood that, no matter how poorly you're doing in Western Europe, shifting to Kabul is not a rational career choice. There's somethin' else going on there.
The Germans appear less than impressed with the American move, and have downplayed warnings of a possible commando-style attack in Europe. That's puzzling. The imam of the mosque that Sidiqi attended, Mamoun Darkazanli, was called an associate of Osama bin Laden by the 9/11 commission. He's facing charges in Spain related to his Al Qaeda links, but none in Germany. I can't figure that out. Germany goes after Tom Cruise for being a Scientologist, but has no official comment about Darkazanli.
If this were a spy novel, the plot would go something like: Sidiqi is a CIA plant, and Darkazanli's working for the Germans. Neither the Germans nor the Americans, nor Sidiqi nor Darkazanli know that both chaps are moles. The Germans are onto something really big, maybe the place where Osama bin Laden is hanging out, but they're foiled because of the premature 'arrest' of Sidiqi and the killing of his associates. They go into a funk, and reject the possibility of 26/11-style terror in Europe. And bin Laden continues to send out occasional greetings from his hideout in a lawless, tribal, mountainous, inaccessible, remote (take your pick) area of Pakistan.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You're out, just walk

Why are cricketers these days so demonstrative when they disagree with an umpire's decision to give them out?
In the old days, they just tucked their bat and walked off. That was when we had no way to tell if the umpire was right.
Now, we have a dozen cameras, tramlines, hotspots, snickometers, super slomo, and all sorts of other technology to determine if a decision was accurate. Surely there's LESS reason for batsmen to let us know they think they've been robbed.
And yet we have Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid all looking shocked, and doing a Bollywood act on being dismissed during the current Test.
One of those three decisions was incorrect: Gambhir got a snick onto his pad and wasn't LBW. The other two calls were perfectly fine, and the great players who showed dissent only made themselves look foolish in the bargain.
Guys, stay dignified, just walk when that finger goes up. The truth will out.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Down the Drain

My Yahoo! column this fortnight is gutter journalism. Well, it's about drains and sewage and suchlike. Read it here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ayodhya question

Here's my Ayodhya question for the day: could we imagine a verdict dividing the land in the fashion it has been, had the mosque still been standing? If the structure was intact, this verdict would necessitate its demolition, and it's hard to see a court ordering such a thing. That's probably why judges dithered for so long in the first place.
Which means the demolition of the mosque, an act in direct contravention of Supreme Court orders, led to the legal recognition of the claims of those who supported demolishing the mosque to begin with.